“What if you could go back in time and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?”Gretchen
Donnie Darko is a bizarre and daring work, all the more impressive as it is the debut from twenty six year old director Richard Kelly. Viewed largely through the eyes of a paranoid schizophrenic teenager, it is engrossing but often difficult to grasp. This is a very odd movie.
Donnie [Jake Gyllenhaal] is a troubled, mentally ill teenager living in the suburbs toward the end of the eighties. One night a deep voice rouses him and causes him to sleepwalk out of his house. There he is confronted by the nightmarish vision of Frank, a six food rabbit with a surreal face twisted into a permanent grin. Frank explains that the world is ending, and realising Frank has saved his life, Donnie feels compelled to follow his instructions.
The tangled science fiction plot involving time travel is confusing and even by the close of the film remains unclear. This may be seen as a flaw and indeed Kelly’s message through the film seems clouded and vague. However this equally leaves Donnie Darko open to a great degree of interpretation, and it is indeed a film that touches on many different aspects of suburban life and hence has many points to make. There are musings on censorship, education, politics, the nature of madness, existensialism, relationships and sex, as well as a philosophical treatise on time travel, all filtered through Donnie’s mind, trying to process this information in a psychotic manner.
Since we see events largely from Donnie’s perspective, Kelly crafts a stunningly realistic world around him, undoubtedly based on his own memories of the era. The film is rife with careful references that place the film in its time, “I’m voting for Dukakis”. The excellent soundtrack is also filled with superb gems from the 80s including Joy Division, The Church and Echo & The Bunnymen.
The film’s mixture of serious sequencies and dark humour is a perfect blend, resting largely on the shoulders of Jake Gyllenhaal, since we are sharing in Donnie’s experiences. It is undoubtedly fascinating to watch him slip into insanity and then rise to visionary as he followed Frank’s advice leading him acts of criminal destruction. Gyllenhaal seems innocent and introverted, yet also knows when to let go as Donnie does get heated when passionate about a belief. His hunched posture around his classmates shows how he doesn’t fit in. Even around his friends, his intelligence sets him apart, “why do you always have to get so smart on us?” complains one after a truly hilarious sermon on the nature of Smurfette. Similarly he feels out of place around his family, althought they clearly care about him. In a poignant scene he asks is mother “how does it feel to have a wacko for a son?” to which she quietly responds, “wonderful”. His family add a real weight to many sequences, with real-life sister Margaret, Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne (a veteran father in teen movies) all putting in good performances. Donnie Darko‘s success lies in amalgamation of the science fiction plot with great the depth into Donnie’s social life, both at school and home through a script full of sharp dialogue without cliché.
The cinematography is beautiful throughout, with an amazing attention to detail. An impressive array of technical skills are displayed, most notably a single silent tracking shot through Donnie’s school that encircles, zooms, speeds up and slows down, set to Tears For Fears’ “Head Over Heels”, swiftly establishing the atmosphere of the buzzing community, from the secretly coke-addicted jock to the professional frustration of Donnie’s English teacher (played by producer Drew Barrymore – an unusual film for her, but she has always encouraged independent film makers).
There are some extremely eerie scenes involving Frank, whose slow otherworldly voice is compelling, and it is believable that Donnie would follow his instructions, whether he is merely a figment of a troubled mind or not. The fact he is cearly wearing a zip-up bunny suit makes him all the more creepy, especially the moment when he appears in the cinema and when Donnie asks, “why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” he quietly retorts, “why do you wear that stupid man suit?”
It is utterly futile to attempt to summarise Donnie Darko, but suffice to say it is one of the most intellectually cagey and challenging films, which will keep running through your head long after the end.
PLOT EXPLANATION – CONTAINS SPOILERS SO READ ONLY AFTER WATCHING:
There is a great wealth of background information available through the DVD, official website and a script book, which includes the full “Philosophy of Time Travel”, Roberta Sparrow’s book which Donnie acquires. This explains that a tangent universe is formed when someone does not die at the point they are intended to. The result is that reality is altered and a tangent is created which will eventually collapse. Within this tangent are the vessel (who should have died), the manipulated living (those living in the tangent universe) and the manipulated dead (those who die in the tangent universe but should have lived in reality). The latter are the most powerful, with the ability to travel through time to guide the vessel, who has the power to return to the original point at which the tangent universe was created, fulfill their destiny restore reality. That is the task Donnie performs, with Frank to guide him. What is unclear, however, is just how much is a figment of Donnie’s deluded mind. The continuity such as Frank’s bleeding eye in the cinema could mean Donnie is in fact experiencing something real, or alternatively, his delusions are what lead him to shoot Frank in the eye later on, in order to make his delusions manifest in reality. Has he simply absorbed the information from the Sparrow’s book into his own psychotic world? Just how much is real and how much exists only in Donnie’s mind is ultimately for the viewer to ascertain…